Mixed Nuts

All aboard for Joaquin Phoenix's crazy train

Actor Joaquin Phoenix is either a total nutjob or an annoyingly pretentious "artist" who thinks he's making a big, bold statement about Hollywood in I'm Still Here, a documentary directed by his pal (and brother-in-law) Casey Affleck. It's hard to tell on which side he falls, since the Phoenix we see in I'm Still Here comes off a combination of both.

Enigmatic to say the least, Phoenix broke out of his late brother River's shadow with an Oscar-nominated role in 2000's Gladiator. He followed up that nomination five years later with another one, for playing Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. But a series of odd turns over the past couple years — he grew a hobo beard, made bizarro public appearances, and launched a rap career — had many people questioning his mental state.

After watching I'm Still Here, you still won't know whether Phoenix lost his mind or if his batshit-crazy behavior (and this movie) is just one big hoax. The film begins with home-movie footage of a seven-year-old Phoenix standing on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a small body of water. After a minute, he dives in. That pretty much serves as metaphor for the Phoenix we see here.

A few scenes later he's all grown up, rambling in front of the camera. "Just don't misunderstand me," he pleads. Throughout the movie, Phoenix offers the usual jaded-actor complaints about Hollywood: It's a machine, everyone's a puppet, etc. It's all too easy at times, as Phoenix acknowledges and plays for the camera. Famous pals like Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, and Bruce Willis show up. So do lesser-known friends and co-workers, all of whom are recipients of Phoenix's obscenity-filled rage.

Much is made of Phoenix's 2008 announcement of his retirement from acting, which takes everyone — including Affleck (an Oscar nominee himself) and Phoenix's agent — by surprise. Even more shocking is the rap career he launches in front of a small club, where people stare slack-jawed at his awful rhymes and even worse flow. We also see Phoenix snort coke, check out online porn, cavort with a pair of prostitutes, pursue Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, make an infamous appearance on David Letterman's show, and get in a fight at one of his concerts.

So how real is I'm Still Here? The movie never lets on. Many scenes come off staged. And it certainly plays like a joke at times (can Phoenix be that delusional about his terrible music?). It's distracting to sit through so many scenes, wondering if they're faked. The film doesn't quite deliver as self-mocking parody or true-life portrait. But you'll watch and cringe anyway. Phoenix always seemed like he had a few screws loose, so his onscreen breakdown could very well be real. But I doubt it. Is that "written by" end credit a hint? Either way, it's a performance that's as self-consciously mannered as it is disturbing.

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